Has anyone been listening?
Dieter Rams and Mark Adams speaking on the occasion of the opening of Vitsœ’s shop at 21 Marylebone Lane, London

Words: Mark Adams & Dieter Rams

Photography: Olivier Hess

From Mark Adams, managing director

It took us just four weeks to turn this space from “very horrible” to “half respectable”. We have moved all of our furniture, lighting and equipment from Duke Street. Before that it moved from 72 Wigmore Street. Even the kitchen sink has moved twice.

We have added longer H-Posts to our shelving system – but they are the same tracks, shelves and cabinets hanging on them. Our sofa now has a few more seats added to it. Our family has expanded, and our home is bigger.

Our lease means that we might have to move relatively soon but, being Vitsœ, we will pack everything up and take it with us. As ever – start small, add to it, rearrange it, take it with you when you move.

From Dieter Rams

The word ‘design’. It has become inflationary in the last few years – everybody understands other things under the name of design. I am always fighting against this because I don’t think the English name is correct. It is applied to some terrible things – it is inflated. Let’s change the name design to the German word Gestaltung. Kindergarten is a common word in English nowadays so why not Gestaltung too. Design as a term and definition used today is inflationary and often misapplied…

From the very beginning, in the 1950s, Vitsœ has been synonymous with good, clear and useful Gestaltung, as well as with Gestaltung that considers both the use of materials and the environmental impact.

First of all, Gestaltung is observing, thinking and understanding. Today, Gestaltung is still strongly related to the Roman Architect, philosopher and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio – Vitruv (1st century BC). He proposed three basic principles for modern Gestaltung, including the second modernity: Firmitas (engineering) – Utilitas (science) – Venustas (aesthetics).

These basic principles, together with the state of our current knowledge of technology, ergonomics, sociology, ecology, psychology and philosophy, and influenced by the three different dimensions are the new functional Gestaltung.

Of course, these aspects cannot be mastered by an individual Gestalter alone; rather, this entails an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work process in which the Gestalter takes on the role of moderator.

And thus we, the Gestalters, no longer need to talk about design thinking, experience design, usability design, participative design or eco design because all these were, and are, implicit in the process of Gestaltung.

Congratulations for 60 years of Vitsœ and thank you, Mark and Jennie. [Jennie Moncur, Vitsœ’s creative director.] It has been a pleasure working with you.

From Mark Adams

About a dozen years ago Dieter Rams and I were in the back of one of his favourite designs, the black cab. We were discussing earnestly the half century of his career. Dieter fixed me with his steely eyes: “But, Mark, has anyone been listening?”

One of the reasons Dieter agreed to make the film ‘Rams’ with Gary Hustwit was that it might help reach more folk who had not been listening. But – precisely 60 years since Vitsœ was founded in September 1959 – listening to what?

We stand here today in critical times:
the heat,
the cold,
the rain,
the drought,
the wild fires,
the spread of deserts,
the bleaching reefs,
the furious hurricanes,
the disappearing Arctic,
the disappearing glaciers,
the disappearing birds,
the disappearing insects.

The science shows that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction or, as the environmentalist George Monbiot said in the Guardian last week, “the first great extermination.”

It was precisely 60 years ago that the physicist Edward Teller told the American Petroleum Institute that a 10% increase in CO2 would be enough to melt the icecap and submerge New York. This week – at the Hawaii observatory that has been measuring atmospheric CO2 for exactly 60 years – we are at a 29.5% increase.

In 1976 Dieter gave a speech – in New York – called ‘Design by Vitsœ’. He spoke of intelligent problem-solving, absolutely avoiding waste, well-thought-out design – for intelligent and responsible users – not consumers. I quote:

“I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk.”

“The times of thoughtless design, which can only flourish in times of thoughtless production for thoughtless consumption, are over. We cannot afford any more thoughtlessness.”

He concluded: “Indeed, the collapse of the entire system may be impending.”

That was in 1976 – 43 years ago. Indeed, has anyone been listening?

Our founder was the charming and gentlemanly Dane, Niels Vitsœ. I was lucky enough to have ten years with him before he left us in 1995. I suspect he would be proud today to see how his child has grown up, exporting 70% of its production to 70 countries – with America now the largest market.

When Dieter and I were discussing Vitsœ’s imminent 60th anniversary he said: “It’s been tough; it was tough for Niels; it’s been tough for you.”

Why has it been tough? Because Vitsœ has doggedly stuck to its guns to sell more people less furniture. Furniture that can be rearranged, repaired or reupholstered. Furniture that is taken with you when you move. Furniture that is not intentionally replaced by newer models. Furniture that is put in our customers’ wills. Frankly, by concentrating on making it better, not pandering to human beings’ obsession with the new.

How will history relate the rise to global fame of a 16-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger’s Syndrome? Have you read the hate messages on Greta Thunberg’s social media postings?

To which she replies: “I am led by the science”. Well I am a scientist and, so far, I support every word that I have read of her utterances. But I suspect she is feeling it is tough.

We are now all aware of Extinction Rebellion. I paraphrase from their handbook: conventional campaigning has failed to bring about the necessary change; for 60 years the world has done nothing.

And because nobody has been listening they have been forced into non-violent disruption governed by a strict set of rules – drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and his battle with the might of the British Empire based on his “insistence on truth”. (It is worth noting that many of the successful civil disobedience campaigns have been led by charismatic individuals. Just think of the suffragettes.)

Extinction Rebellion’s message is: Tell the truth; get the truth out. As one of my colleagues said – who took holiday from Vitsœ to join XR last week – “It’s either extinction or rebellion.” After increasingly tougher action from the Police I suspect that XR may conclude, “It’s been tough…”

In the ‘Rams’ film Dieter is asked his view of electric cars. He said that he was unimpressed by the technology because we need to rethink the entire transportation system. But it’s not only the transportation system – it seems abundantly clear that the entire system needs to change.

I suspect it needs to happen from the ground up. I suspect that the existing order is under threat. But that’s a conversation for later…

And finally, the question we are all hearing? “What can I do?”

We can all do less, but do it better. Just try it before every decision you take.

Country Life magazine was recently promoting the long-held policy of my family to eat less meat, but to eat better meat. (The scientist in me knows that the solution is just not as simple as veganism for all, or electric cars for all.)

Or one pair of good, repairable, long-lasting shoes. I prefer one glass of good wine, not a bottle of cheaper wine.

We must slow our lives down. We must travel less. We must seek those few items and experiences that are truly fulfilling. We must apply it in our personal lives. And we must apply it everywhere we have influence in our working lives…

Dieter, I hope we can convince you that we have been listening.